Texas Tech University

Expert: Clown Threats Create Fear, But They’re Not Terrorism

Glenys Young

October 6, 2016

Col. Dave Lewis

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Dave Lewis is the director of the Strategic Studies graduate program.


The fear of clowns has been around for decades, perpetuated by Stephen King's 1986 novel "It" as well as dozens of TV shows and movies. But what previously was an underlying nervousness recently has mushroomed into a more immediate threat.

On Aug. 29, residents at a South Carolina apartment complex reported a person in a clown costume trying to lure children into the woods. The same situation was reported Sept. 4 in North Carolina. Ten days later, two boys in Georgia reported being chased by men dressed as clowns.

Since then, the fear has grown as people across the country continue to report being chased by or simply spotting people dressed as clowns. It has caused school lockdowns, more than a dozen arrests and false reports generally considered to be hoaxes. Social media has responded with entire accounts dedicated to creepy clowns.

Col. Dave Lewis
Col. Dave Lewis

But a Texas Tech University terrorism expert says despite the growing sense of fear, it's important to avoid calling the threats and attacks acts of terrorism.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Dave Lewis is the director of the Strategic Studies graduate program at Texas Tech. He teaches courses in strategy, intelligence, terrorism, counterinsurgency, national security, public sector strategy and Homeland Security. He was a career military officer with extensive operational and staff experience, and he served as a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College after earning his master's degree with distinction in national security and strategic studies there.


Col. Dave Lewis, director of strategic studies graduate program, (806) 787-9730 or dave.lewis@ttu.edu

Talking points

  • An act must meet four criteria to be considered terrorism:
    • It must use or threaten violence.
    • It must serve a political goal.
    • It must be committed by someone classified as a non-state or sub-state actor.
    • It must be committed against someone considered a noncombatant.
  • Threats create additional risks by burdening already understaffed law enforcement agencies.
  • The clown threats are not terrorism. They are at best a prank for notoriety and at worst anarchy.
  • An act that is not terrorism still can be dangerous and cause problems.


  • "The goal with this clown stuff seems to be either just to gain notoriety or to create turmoil or anarchy, and even if they're trying to do it for economic benefits or personal gain, it doesn't really fit our terrorism definition. Think about drug cartels. Do they use terror? Absolutely. Are they trying to change a political system? No, they're trying to make money."
  • "Who do we classify as terrorists? Usually we talk about non-state or sub-state actors: somebody that is not a country and doing something that is not what we'd consider the legitimate use of violence, like fighting wars. It's somebody who is using violence to achieve political goals that they don't have a process to achieve."
  • "When people start talking about terrorism, I apply that four-way test to make sure we're on the same level of definition because it's such an emotionally charged word. We have to really adhere to a strict definition of what we believe terrorism is. It doesn't mean people aren't afraid or that they're not being terrorized, but we want to look at that political goal."
  • "Sometimes in this day and age of social media, people just pick up on things and run with it. We could start to create an element of panic, and that's where it becomes dangerous."
  • "Even though we're taking a strict definition of terrorism, that doesn't mean it's not dangerous or that it can't create challenges. A terroristic threat is different than what we consider terrorism. If somebody were to do something to try to make you fearful or cause harm to you, I believe that would be a terroristic threat versus what we would traditionally call terrorism."
  • "From an anarchy perspective, the implications are that we're occupying our law enforcement and creating havoc with our universities, our residents, our dorms. You have to take this seriously, but there's an opportunity cost to that. When somebody's doing something like that, what aren't the police forces able to do? If we actually have a serious crime going on and our law enforcement is responding to something that's frivolous, then we've really created a problem in our community."

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